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The owners of Lark in Bury St Edmunds, Sophia and James Carn, on Angel Hill restaurant’s ‘crazy’ first year

Going past the red telephone box and into the blue door of Lark, there is no inkling of this building’s past as a former flower shop, a police station or a bus shelter.

Sophia and James had tirelessly converted the place into their beautiful and instantly welcoming Bury St Edmunds restaurant before opening it on February 11 last year – since then, attention and accolades for the 24-seater place have just not stopped coming.

Sophia, who was previously a Business Studies lecturer at West Suffolk College, said of the last 12 months: “We never expected to have this type of success in such a short space of time.

Owners of Lark restaurant on Angel Hill, Bury Saint Edmunds, Sophia and James Carn. Picture: Mark Westley
Owners of Lark restaurant on Angel Hill, Bury Saint Edmunds, Sophia and James Carn. Picture: Mark Westley

“We had a plan of what direction we wanted to go in; James has the experience of working in kitchens at a high level but nothing prepares you for a first year like we have had.”

She is not wrong. Not many places can say within their first 365 days that they have been included in the Good Food Guide’s Top 100 local restaurants in the UK, mentioned in the Michelin Guide and made number 39 in SquareMeals.co.uk’s Top 100 Restaurants in the UK.

But that is not all. James, who has previously plied his trade at Pea Porridge and Tuddenham Mill, also won the Chef To Watch category at The Good Food Guide Awards last month (with Lark also being short-listed in the Best New Restaurant category) and in the same week the restaurant became the only Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand in Suffolk.

James with his Chef to Watch award from The Good Food Guide. Pictures: Mark Westley
James with his Chef to Watch award from The Good Food Guide. Pictures: Mark Westley

The pair agree though that the glowing review of restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who visited in July, really started the ball rolling to put Lark on the foodie map.

Not only did he rave about the restaurant, calling it ‘special’, he said its rabbit and black pudding pie was ‘an extraordinary piece of work’, describing it as the love child of a Wellington and a Scotch egg.

James said: “It was nerve racking when he came in as he is a big character and we had no idea he was coming.

“He ate a lot of food very quickly and then the kitchen door flew open and there he was – he talked about the pie, saying it was unbelievable, before he added ‘I suppose I had better go and do my journo bit, but just so you know that was delicious’.

The Lark’s review from Jay Rayner is in pride of place in the Bury St Edmunds restaurant. Picture: Mark Westley
The Lark’s review from Jay Rayner is in pride of place in the Bury St Edmunds restaurant. Picture: Mark Westley

“He then tapped his pen on his notepad, span round and left as quickly as he came in – it was like Batman had come into the kitchen, leaving us wondering what just happened.”

In his end-of-year review, the famous critic also crowned Lark his best restaurant of 2023 and the pie as his dish of the year.

Sophia recalled the moment they found that out on New Year’s Eve.

She said: “We were closed, away at the time in Aldeburgh with friends and James had bought a copy of the paper – it was really special and definitely our highlight so far.”

The couple opened Lark on February 11 last year – since then awards and praise have flooded in. Picture: Mark Westley
The couple opened Lark on February 11 last year – since then awards and praise have flooded in. Picture: Mark Westley

James added: “That end of year review turned the tap on again for us through January. His kind words also set our business on a trajectory and a path that we can not thank him enough for.”

But for all the success, the pair understand where their bread is buttered, as for all the national and even international recognition it is home where their heart is.

Sophia said: “The main part of our plan was to be a local restaurant to serve this area and get lots of repeat customers to come again and again and we have definitely done that, which is lovely.

“We never take that for granted as it is at the forefront of what we do - our local customers are really important.”

Inside the 24-seater restaurant when in opened last year. Picture: Mecha Morton
Inside the 24-seater restaurant when in opened last year. Picture: Mecha Morton

James agreed: “They are so special to us. The person who flew over from Bahrain to eat here once is flattering and the people who travelled over from Wales to eat here two nights in a row the other week, that is too, but what creates the business is our local community and that is priceless.”

Support from the restaurant’s close knit team as well as that of the community is not lost on the couple.

Sophia said: “What I like about this journey so far, are the people that have come on it with us from day one.

“Without those we would not be looking at all the incredible and crazy things that have gone on this year.

Sophia and James Carn outside Lark on Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds. Pictures: Mark Westley
Sophia and James Carn outside Lark on Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds. Pictures: Mark Westley

“They all share a combined interest in making this place a success and that is totally invaluable – all the awards would not be here if our team had not bought into what we do.”

James added: “Everyone also asks us about setting up a restaurant close to Pea Porridge, a close friend and someone I worked with.

“But Justin is one of our biggest champions and could not be more supportive and I could not be more supportive of him and I am so happy about him retaining his star.

“Other businesses in the town as well as our amazing customers have also really got behind us – we can’t thank them all enough for that.”

With the second year of the business now under way, the continuing vision for the multi award-winning Lark is not set to change, but Sophia and James will also not be resting on their laurels.

Sophia said: “That is also one of the most asked questions from people – are we now going to move to a bigger site, and the answer is ‘no’.

“We want to make this site work even better for us and we are not finished yet with other things that we want to achieve here.

“We are concentrating on making this the best it can be.”

James added: “We are not going to be reviewed by Jay Rayner every year, so that is why we have to always improve, be on the front foot and create new things and a reason for people to keep coming here as Bury has been very supportive and we have loads of lovely regulars.

“Some people have said to us ‘not another restaurant’ but if you ask me we need more – I believe a better calibre of places then lifts everyone to continue to keep being better and that in turn brings more people here too.

“With the likes of 1921, Maison Bleue and Pea Porridge here as well as us, there is fantastic variety for diners and enough people who love food in the area to go around.

“We probably won’t have a year like this again, there are always the top 100s and stuff, but I cannot see us reaching the dizzy heights like we have this year – it has been incredible.

“But our main idea of success has always been having a fully booked restaurant, that we are here now and we will be here next year and hopefully for many years to come – We just hope we can keep having that.”